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“You'd be a complete doll if you tilted your umbrella juuuust a bit over my way.”
“What? I, shit, yeah...I mean, oh sure,” he replied too quickly and too loudly. Either way, he nudged the metallic pole a few inches in her direction, grinding it forcefully through the tough sand, the resulting shade more than enough to protect her alabaster physique.
Tilting her sunglasses down ever-so-slightly so she could lock eyes with him, she grinned comfortably like she had done this before, said, “You're a peach, hun,” and sprawled onto her towel just inches away. Despite her forwardness she didn't make him nervous like most girls, and after all, she could have chosen any towel-sized plot of sand, but she chose the one right beside him, so he was entitled to stare if just for two seconds too long.
Probably just out of college, she somehow found a way to hang onto her high school body – thin arms, great skin, flat stomach, inner thighs that pinched comfortably between a thumb and two fingers. And her face was utterly stunning (innocent in every single place except for that hard-to-notice bedroom-adventurous gleam) that he had already forgotten about her unsupported bikini fabric.
He knew his window of acceptable ogling time was just about closed, so he turned to the ocean again, the only place he could ever come up with fresh ideas for work. Like a dog, his blue-green muse was faithful and lapping. Unfortunately, this new great idea had not come to fruition yet. At the moment the only thing ripe in the front of his mind was the beauty that had arrived under his shade. He was going to have to scrap this endeavor and hope his powerful muse proved to have compassion in her deep mysterious waters, allowing him to salvage this sunken ship another time, for this woman's presence drew him inside an ethereal cloud, magical if not productive. Since he was a little boy he had always had his most profound and vivid thoughts when it was just him and ocean – alone together. Could anything or anyone come between them?
Since well before high school his folks had been taking him to this very beach. While Dad surfed for hours off-shore, Mom became engrossed in yet another romance or murder mystery novel, the kind whose pages were weirdly yellow -- the thickest easy books ever. “Let Mommy concentrate on her story,” she would say politely without making eye-contact. “Make one up in your head,” she would add encouragingly (or mockingly?). They didn't feel like they were neglecting the poor boy. After all, they fed him well, sent him to a decent school, and brought him to the beautiful beach every weekend. What more could the boy want? He had friends in the neighborhood, but he got so used to those long days alone in the sand, that over time he preferred thoughts to flesh. His teachers scolded him for daydreaming too much. The girls began to think he was weird. And it wasn't until he entered film school that anybody even knew his imagination existed. Worlds swirled inside his head. Thoughts mated, their offspring begat worlds of their own, rocks of creation unturned. Nevertheless, he knew what others thought of him and he looked forward to the day when he could live normally and not be a prisoner inside his own head.
Upon arriving that day he had a tingle on his skin, a sign of good to come. And even though the sand around him was at first companionless, it gradually began accumulating (mostly) doughy imprints of human bottoms, the mouths linked to said keisters eventually spoiling his peace. The odds of those voices and their attached asses coming near, of those deputy dog cheeks flapping in the breeze and killing his concentration, mirrored those of a hustler running a Bronx shell game; the squawks from pasty plump Ohio tourists have been known to rub out the musings of genius. Instead, thankfully, his presence was blessed by the goddamned tastiest distraction he had seen in forever. And at that thought, he found himself looking her way again.
He had finally put the idea of refining his vision for the next project officially on the back burner and focused his eyes, no, his attention, no, his heart, on the creature beside him. From his angle he could have stared all day at those long slender legs if he had wanted to. Wouldn't have been a bad day, either, but he had to see that eye-spark one more time. Even if it was a risky move, he went for it, gambling all that nervous tension and risking a horrendously awkward near-future to meet her gaze. To his surprise, it felt like she had been waiting for him. The smile of relief that splashed onto her face sighed a nonverbal, “Finally!” and what he found when he looked deep into those mysterious hazel irises was no less stunning than his muse the mighty sea. A force of nature.
In a way he had never experienced before, ideas pranced, two-stepped, dosey-doed, and jigged through his (he then realized) innocent and naïve skull. Had he not known true wonder until now? Had the ocean he so adored been nothing but – compared to this newcomer, this goddess – a natural occurrence as commonplace as buttercups and mud puddles? But just as quickly as his party of black tie ideas had begun mingling and toasting their creative cocktails high in the air, nearly percolating into an orgiastic stream of imagination, the record scratched out and his head went blank again.
Something was wrong.
She wasn't looking into his eyes at all, but rather past them, or right through him, focusing on something or someone else.
When he turned around there was a splendidly large sun, gorgeous in Russet and Valencia hues, along with a young boy, maybe six, flying a toy kite in the sky and angling it ever so perfectly, its silhouette dotting the fiery ball in the blue vault like a fair German’s pupil. Three eyes of beauty staring at him -- one from the heavens and two from the shade. And it was then that the spark of creativity, the muse, came rushing back to him. He picked up his notebook and jotted diligently, unconcerned with legibility, only worrying to capture the essence of ideas here in this fleeting realm called earthly time and space, a place where so much is forgotten.
It took him seven minutes to fill the yellow pad's page, though it felt like a twenty second turn in a money wind machine, his fists left clenching on tight to freshly hauled in ideas. Like an expert lumberjack he had meticulously painted all of the trees to fall; all he had to do now was chop. To him, the time spent behind the camera was more grunt work than artistry. The footage was easy to gather as long as the seed of vision germinated properly, and today it had, however when he lifted his head up after dotting that last sentence, the girl beside him was gone, an imprint of her dairyaire remained in the sand and her footprints led up the beach toward the boardwalk. Perhaps she went for a drink or to use the bathroom. Though his intuition told him that wasn’t the case. What he would do next was simple and obvious. Besides considering forming a plaster mold of those ass-cheeks, he would wait.
And so he sat and he waited. He watched the sun's circular outline plummet over the horizon, disappearing as if being swallowed slowly by an infesting Florida python. After a while, he stood up and performed a full panoramic search for the girl who had dashed so quickly into and out of his life. As he scanned he shaded his eyes and puffed out his chest like a dutiful lifeguard, but she was nowhere to be seen. So he continued to wait. To pass the time, while the sun was still finding a way to project its rays up and over the vast curvature of the earth, he read through his notes, at first congratulating himself on such ingenious ideas, then reneging and cursing himself for losing their source! Had he not written with blinders on, in that zone of white concentration, he wouldn’t have taken his imagination to that indescribable place. It was a catch-22 and he would wait all night if he had to.
The sun's light finally ran out, but his patience did not. Feelings of persistence and hope ran through him, however irrational they may have been. The sounds of the boardwalk changed from careless family jibber-jabber to the exaggerated guffaws of self-indulgent adults. The clanks of plastic sand castle buckets morphed into clinks of martini glasses, the chatter of AM beach radios converted into the pulsating beats of a nearby nightclub. But she still didn't return, and with nothing left to lay his gaze on, he closed his eyes and tried to reconfigure her image, one imperfect yet beautiful piece at a time.
His eyes remained shut and time passed on. Her shape took form and in his sleep the image he had created became animated, walking slowly toward him. Her legs glistened under the sun like before, and her eyes performed layers of functions. Behind those sea green shutters were a child, a comedian, a performer and a seductress. When she got close she put her fingertips around his waist, the part that's mostly skin and bone, then slid only her fingernails under the elastic grip of his swim trunks. He squirmed instinctively, but she thought it was cute, more of a cue that it was safe to get closer than a sign that he was inexperienced, or worse, afraid. Now close enough, the smell – a mixture of shampoo, sea salt, and pheromones – rushed into his nostrils, setting neurons spinning in his brain off like the whizzing reels on a slot machine. The rush of an unfamiliar desire. A treasure. Jackpot. The rest of the collision, for that's what it was -- raw, visceral -- was experienced not in conventional time, but as one moment slipping seamlessly into place with next, like a time lapse recording of a mistake-free completion of an impossible jigsaw puzzle. Flashes of stimulation like projection slides of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Dream merging with reality. To try to appreciate the subtlety of one of the senses involved was to miss the big picture. But to appreciate the experience as a whole was to miss out on the finer animalistic details. Confusion brought on by passion. Then submission. That tug-of-war played itself out for thirty sensual minutes, but it seemed like three-thousand. When it was over, out of the slits of his tired eyes, he could see her shimmy her way back into that bathing suit and disappear up the beach just as quickly as she had materialized. She stopped for an instant, turned around, smiled and winked at the lucky bastard still lying there – satisfied. Was it real after all?
Any pre-coitus man in his right mind would have bolted down the dark beach after her, his prized love, doing anything – pleading, deceiving, performing impossibly heroic feats – to stop her from making one more indistinguishable footprint in the sand. But ironically that would be time travel, my friends, for he was post-coitus, wading in a pool so satisfying that he hadn’t thought to hang-on to her. Men. He realized now – just after that last toe left the sand for the night, as her moon shadow disappeared behind the picnic structure just past the beach – that none of it was fiction. The unchangeable truth told him that she was gone. But forever?
Maybe those first few new squiggly swimmers had materialized, or maybe he actually loved her. Whichever, he wanted her back and he knew as much. The fact that she wasn't making a homecoming was fucking depressing. Out of ideas about how to alleviate the pain, he buried himself in his work: that apple before a ripe summer peach, that John Glenn before Neil Armstrong. He filled endless days and nights perfecting the film. The work was good, but lacking. And because his work could never achieve that lofty level of perfection that that dark moment on the beach was able to, he couldn't stop tinkering, tweaking, and toggling until it was cleaner, crisper and cooler than ever before. Redefining his perception of high-quality, his muse had struck gold for him again.
“What the fuck got into you, Blumlund?” shouted an ecstatic Billy Saturday, Eric's producer. “This is the best shit to have ever come drooling out of your goober mouth. Applause! Applause!”
After the screening, the small-ball producer called his people and lobbied for wider promotion and recognition, which eventually came, followed by screenings at a few local independent theaters in the city, which eventually spread to others. And so on and so on. In certain circles it wouldn't have been an exaggeration to say that little old Mr. Blumlund had gained what is known as a cult following, aka the grandest prize in showbiz, the reason he ever picked up a camera in the first place. He gave interviews to a variety of magazines and online publications, and the common theme that appeared in all of them was his muse. He described her as his “lady of the sea”. The interviewers took those flowery words as a metaphor for the city and her briny proximity, a fine guess but an assumption and off the mark.
Eric paid no mind to the interpretive fallacies of critics, for they added an air of mystique to his brand. When falsely or correctly doled out, extrinsic praises were a mere sugary extra, sweetness with a half-life, no more real than perceptions of the stars’ meaning or of the invisible scientific forces holding them together – constructs of the mind, mere brainchildren of a short-list of evolved and inaccurate senses. What was more inclined to stick to Mr. Blumlund's sides, however, keeping him full and content, was the the splendid memory of the creative process, momentarily balanced perfectly like the letter V, held taught by a past and future unaware of each other, none of it made possible without the kind and thoughtful muse that showed up that day, over a year ago now, under his umbrella.
He never completely put the memory of that girl at the beach out of his mind, strolling up and down that same familiar stretch of sand whenever he had free time, which was nearly every day now that his film was finished, discovering new ideas at the same rate that topographers discover new continents. His well had dried up. Fresh images upstairs were scarce, but memories were running a surplus, and the future seemed bleak as he combed the beach for glimpses of his muse, who without, mediocrity crept up on him like boxer shorts in summer. So he would stare too long at the teenage beauties that lined the smooth hot sand. They would home in on his protracted gawk and rush to cover up like Saudi women after a haboob. Horrified creatures those babes did become.
Eric came back day after day and quickly got the reputation for being the creepy guy down by the pier. People stared and he ignorantly mistook their pointed fingers as those of fans. After all, his movie was catching sail. One day, however, the finger pointing his way didn't belong to a trim co-ed, but to a man dressed all in blue, save for the gold star badge. And this time the word that came out of his mouth wasn't creep, but freeze.
The concrete floor of his holding cell was colder than he had imagined, his cellmate much less hefty and much less black. It wasn't long before the station officer called his name and took him to an interrogation room. Though his story was odd, he was able to talk his way out of any charges. After all, using one's eyes at a public place is far from a crime. A solid tongue lashing was all he got, and though he counted the word pervert having been said twenty-six times he let out a sigh of relief when he found himself out on the pavement, free from the law but still enslaved by the image of his muse, the girl that he then realized would be his demise should he fail to find her again.
Eric had a dream that night that Fate was a domineering pimp of the Muses. Decked out in a purple suit and matching wide-brimmed hat he told those poor inspirational bitches who they could and couldn’t spark with their gifts, as well as how often. The angry boss then looked at poor Eric with evil intent, his eyes filled with red-hot fire, pushed his long and twisted finger into Blumlund’s bony chest and said, “Stay away from the girl, peckerwood.” It was enough to jolt Eric out of bed in a cold sweat and consider ending his quest to find her. Still dark, he sat upright and considered this option hard. By sunset, though, he came to the realization that he would not give up looking for her. He could not give up looking for her. Ever. So he started a serious hunt for his muse. Of course beaches, but also department stores, boutiques and coffee shops made up the bulk of his hunting ground. When possible, he tried to wear the same t-shirt that he wore that day under the umbrella. Thanks to the Internet he soon had a drawer full. After a few months of frantic searching, not only hadn't he snared that wondrous bird, but he was also severely behind on his next project, as well as deep in the doldrums.
After a freakout in a Macy's (which entailed clenching a young female patron's shoulders squarely and firmly while screaming, “Why aren't you her! You have to be her!”) and another scrape with the law at the beach, he feared he was caught in a downward spiral and called off the search, spending the following days in his home studio trying, but not succeeding, to focus on his work. Though the bloodhounds lay panting eagerly in the barn, they hadn't lost the memory of the scent, or of the desire to find it, so when he beared down and told himself that he was going to work, his gaze drifted away from the computer and meandered toward the blank opal wall (a perfect canvas for daydreaming). Images of her delicate legs and her kaleidascope eyes cycloned through his consciousness. Ideas of concert halls and diners, places she might show her face, gave him hope and distracted him further. Changing his routine hadn't helped him work more and neither did it keep her off his mind.
He knew that the day would come when he had to own up to his shortcomings...one way or another.
About a month later, after one too many grade school excuses (one only had so many family members who could have “emergencies”) he couldn't avoid his executive producer any longer. Sitting down in his office, Eric had no plan for getting out of trouble – he had dug that deep of a hole for himself. I shall accept my fate however she reveals herself: witch or guardian angel. And so, the plump, red-faced little veteran of the 40 Years Hollywood War began the sparring session filled with wincing jabs of insult, always preceded by equally stinging backhanded compliments. A master technician.
“I will never let that fine piece of work you did some time ago fall from my memory, but I can't be a producer without product. . There’s a lot of young talent that I could roll the dice with. At least I’d know they’d be prolific. Congolese elephants eat and shit diamonds every now and again. In this business bad work is better than no work at all, and it’s my job to dig through the shit up to my elbows. I’m the slave in the gem yard and my foreman is about to chop my fucking hand off if I don’t make him some money. Why the hell do you think I’m such an old bastard?” All he said was fair and absorbable. But then the cells in his cheeks began to acquired blood, even more in volume than the two-fingers of scotch he had with his breakfast. He then said bluntly, “I give my booger-faced nephew a camcorder and he puts out better shit that you. Get me something by fucking Friday or you're ass is fired.” Like any experienced fighter he saved his haymaker till the end.
“Yes, sir. I'll turn things around. I've been struggling a little in my, uh...” – just then, like a schoolboy, Eric's voice cracked into a falsetto – “personal life,” and in that instant, reality, as it sometimes does, switched off its autopilot and illuminated to Eric his pitiful existence, one absent of the lifeblood of human progress, one void of creativity. Without the big “C”, during this brief moment of clarity, Eric knew he was as good as dead. This epiphany was the kick in the ass that he needed, not the chick from the beach. He knew now that he had always had the power. The muse was within.
As a gesture of closure, he returned to the very beach where it had all started – the same beach that he had known true pleasure over a year ago, the same beach the police had dragged him from in handcuffs, and also the same beach that his dear parents had taken him to so many years ago. In a way, his whole life -- the loving highs, the disgraceful lows and the rocksteady moments of innocence -- were all there in that sand. He once thought that everything he needed to be creative crashed under those reliable waves, beamed in with that bright and steadfast helotic orb in the sky, or more recently, sparkled out of a woman’s eyes. The lunacy! One last time he would return to that beach, his lifelong companion, and pay a final homage to that false idol. As he twisted his trusty umbrella deep into the sand and unfolded his rusty chair, a sense of a new beginning brushed along his cheeks, mixed with the scents of the suntan lotion and filtered cigarettes of custardy tourists he once again felt at home and could put the past behind him.
Blumlund pulled out his yellow legal pad and uncapped his pen before fixing his gaze on the lapping waves, hoping they would set him into a sort of trance, in which he could channel his creative force. As his eyes went glassy and the world in front of him blurred, he heard the sound of children splish-splashing through the shallow water. Without focusing he could easily see them waddling along, gripping oversized plastic shovels while jaundiced, rash-inducing inflatable duckies stuck grippingly to their soft little arms. Their innocence and frivolity filled Eric with a sense of hope and possibility. They knew not the woes of failure or the soul-grinding effects of fuming bosses, corporate brackets and social ladders. Just then the rush of the muse, this time cherubic instead of provocative, overflowed out of him, its energy beaming in a steady stream from hand to pen to paper.
High upon the exciting muse rush, Eric Bloomlund ran ashore onto an undiscovered continent of new ideas. He asked those newfound muses, those synaptic fairies of innocence and uncovered memories, to stay with him, to never leave. But feelings of resentment and hate crept into his pure flow of mind. Unlike the girl from before, he forbade them to prance out of his life, kicking sand up into his face on their way out. But his inability to be present yanked his new muse away under cold grasping fingers, reaching insistently from the past and slapping his glassy-eyed euphoric stare back into focus, back to the grim reality poor Eric had, ironically, created for himself.
The kids now had full diapers and snotty noses. Their parents lobbed profanities and threats at them, a barrage of endless grenades onto weaker opponents. A yellow Lays potato chip bag floated in the water, abrasively scrubbing away beauty like brillo. In a flash the entire scene had gone from romantic to cancerous.
The next occurrence was most cruel of all. The avatar of his internal muse, the rashy, mucous encased toddler, barely able to stand, down playing in shallows, turned Eric’s way and undoubtedly looked him in the eye. Something strangely familiar flickered from those glimmering globes. Not sure why, the boy continued to look, intrigued. While eye-locked with the brat a funny memory entered old Blumlund's dome. A vivid picture of his grandma's floral tablecloth – lily pad green and buttercup yellow offset by a chipped-tusk white – stuck center stage in his mind's eye. Its awe-striking beauty smashed back into his emotional memory like a brick to the face. His younger self didn't need to call on some fairytale muse to drop beauty into his life like it was scarcer than platinum. It shocked him how intuitive he was once. It nearly knocked him back out of his chair to understand again how, if nurtured properly, children see the world the way it was meant to be seen: simply gloriously. He was able to feel the contrast of perspective between his younger self and this current decrepit one in a singular flash of emotion so horrific that it forced bile to bubble up from his stomach. What have I turned into? Did this sickly world really suck that magic out of me so slowly and slickly that I failed to notice? Are we all that naïve?
But the kid really was pointing at him. No, the boy didn't know him, but his intuition knew something. He knew to call attention to the man under the umbrella, and that was enough because his mother, tall, skinny and attractive save for the twenty surplus LBs she was packing, did a double take. She clawed off her sunglasses haphazardly and took half a wary step forward to auto-focus the sight laid out in front of her.
“You,” she said.
A few more steps came next, this time intentional. “I can't fucking believe it's you!” she exclaimed, void of joy, and full to the brim of its opposite. Next she was marching aggressively, leaving crumpled towels and crushed toys in her wake. When she finally arrived just in front of his umbrella he was able put it all together. It was her! And he was happy until his head started doing math on its own, calculating the age of that boy.
The math added up and all he could get out was a weary, “It's you,” the word you dropping out of his mouth like a hot iron.
He remembered that she used to look athletic, her legs slender and agile. He now assumed she must have been a soccer player because of the way that she inside-kicked the sand. Eric's mouth, which had been agape, was now full of freshly foot-flung beach and he could feel it grinding between his teeth which were clenched in frustration. Once his muse, she was now definitely not in the business of helping him. Instead of yelling at Blumlund in front of her son, the boy with the muse-like intuition, she only pantomimed to the despicable sand-covered man.
First she pointed at her son. Second, she pointed to her stomach. Third, she pointed at lowly old Blumlund, only this time she chose the adjacent finger, raising it high in the air toward the all-seeing sun.
And that was the last that old Blumlund ever saw of his once-precious muse.
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